Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Wonderful Only Because It's The City, Why Central Park Only Rates As An Average Park.

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The Good: Nice scenery, Activities in winter and summer, Sense of culture
The Bad: Not the greatest variety of...anything, Problematic parking
The Basics: There is a lot to do -little of it actually having to do with communing with nature- in Central Park, the closest thing to a nature escape in NYC.

As a lover of nature and as one who just bought a State Park pass to get my wife and I into every state park in New York State this season, it might seem strange that I am proudly writing a contrarian review of Central Park in New York City. The truth is, though, that around New York State there are dozens of parks which are better than Central Park and arguably the only reason that Central Park in New York City is such a rush to so many people is that it is the most green people who live their lives on the island ever see. My dad, on one of our trips to New York City, made a crack that stuck with me ever since; about New York City and Central Park, he noted, "They spend so much time and money building up the island with new high-rises and industrial areas and then they pay the biggest premiums to face the one place on the island that is least like the City!" He's right; Central Park is the great big exception to the rule of what New York City is.

As a result, travelers to New York State (yes, we have a whole state outside The City) are likely to find other state parks have more to offer those who love nature, flowers, camping or hiking than Central Park in New York City does. I'm not saying - as one will see later - that it's not worth visiting Central Park as part of a New York City experience, but it's pretty much the least New York City thing one can do in New York City, save going to the movie theater for whatever banal flick Summer Blockbuster Theater is spewing out that week. If you want beauty, Central Park is easily trumped by Green Lake State Park (reviewed here!). If you want activities and a colossal number of flowers blooming before your eyes, Central Park doesn't hold a candle to Highland Park in Rochester. But for those visiting New York City and feeling boxed in, Central Park offers some green in an otherwise gray and glass city.


Central Park is appropriately named as it is located pretty much in the middle of midtown Manhattan. This is a giant stretch of grass and rock that is essentially a huge open space that extends from 110th St. down to 59th St. The park occupies that amount of space between the perpendicular streets Central Park West (a block over from Columbus Avenue) and 5th Avenue. This is over two hundred acres of real estate in the middle of New York City.

Central Park is an organized open space filled with grass little knolls, boulders and paved trails. There are trees and small lake, four ponds and the reservoir which supplies the City with fresh drinking water. This is the most green one is likely to see in the summer in New York City (outside Wall Street) and in the summer, it is usually a few degrees cooler than the rest of the City. It is virtually impossible to get lost trying to find Central Park; if one is cutting across the island, they are pretty much guaranteed to run into it unless they are too high or too low on island. As noted, this is a pretty significant amount of space in New York City for any one body to take up. As well, if one simply looks for the lack of buildings and heads for it, odds are they are headed right for Central Park!

Ease Of Local Transport/Parking

Perhaps one of my most repetitive mantras in New York City is "New York City is a pain in the butt to get around in." Central Park is no exception. There seem to be ever-changing parking regulations near the Park, but to the best of my knowledge one cannot park within a block of the Park and if you can, it is expensive and there are time limits. New York City is a great city for people willing to walk around. My partner and I parked several blocks away from Central Park and hiked it. The least expensive parking is the parking closest to the Henry Hudson Parkway on the west side and similar places on the East side. Parking there is about a mile to walk to the Park. Trying to find parking at any time of day near Central Park is going to be problematic and annoying at best, if not impossible and over-expensive.

Within Central Park, there are several options for getting around. Walking is the most popular, though in recent years, in-line skaters and bicycles have been popular. In the winter, Central Park is wonderful to cross-country ski through. Central Park - save for a few locations where service vehicles tend to equipment or properties - is devoid of automobiles. For the full tourist experience, there are carriage rides through Central Park and they run on the order of $35 for an hour.


Unlike any number of parks in New York State or the rest of the United States, there are frequently activities running throughout Central Park. First, there are at least twenty-six notable sites within Central Park (easily found on the map at the Central Park official website centralparknyc.org ). These include the Central Park Zoo, Belvedere Castle, a theater (for outdoor plays, etc.) and various boathouses. Central Park is a combination of yet another place in New York City where there are a ton of things to do and nothing to do but experience a close facsimile of nature. People who love the outdoors will easily recognize that the wooded areas are the result of planning and organization and even non-nature buffs are forced to acknowledge that there are not paved paths through real nature sites.

So, the purpose here is one of two things: either to do something or to not do anything. This might seem obvious, but unlike so many places in New York City, Central Park is much more about what you want to bring to it or get out of it than other New York City experiences. Unlike, for example, an art gallery where one goes to be enlightened or informed or a restaurant where one goes with the intent to have a great meal and/or get filled up, Central Park is about either doing things or hanging out and seeing New York City pass one by.

For those who want to do nothing, Central Park is about wandering miles of curving roads without cars, looking at giant boulders, descending into a little valley and climbing out. It is a place where the purpose is to forget you're in one of the giant bull's-eye cities on Earth and enjoy the simplicity of wandering near flowers, pine trees, and running water. It is one of the greatest places on the planet to watch people as in the course of a single day hundreds of people from every walk of life, ethnicity, and personality will walk through. It's a place to meet friends and listen to music or watch performers do their thing. It's the closest place outdoors most people in New York City will ever find solitude. This, however, is also why Central Park is only an average park: in a city of eight million people, at any given time the number of people looking for solitude and a connection with nature is still going to be in the tens of thousands (even in winter). The ability to find yourself truly alone in Central Park during the day to actually commune with nature is so limited as to be considered a pipe dream.

As for those looking to do something, Central Park is merely an open-air extension of the rest of New York City. There are physical activities, like skating (in-line or ice). In the summer, there is swimming at the Lasker Swimming Pool on the north end (or standing around in water, as it is often crowded and it's not like you'd be able to do laps there); in the winter, there is ice skating at the same locale. There are structures like Belvedere Castle in the middle of the park that offer tours for sightseers, the Discovery Center on the northeast corner of the Park where children can learn through numerous programs sponsored by the Central Park Conservatory. There is a Conservatory (also in the northeast section of the Park), but it is easily rivaled by conservatories in Rochester, NY and Niagara Falls. Similarly, the playgrounds throughout the park (there are at least four spread throughout the park) are fine, but basic and they tend to be as crowded as every other attraction in New York City, so it's hard to recommend Central Park as a place for children.

Come to think of it, the time I appreciated Central Park the most was on my last visit, with my partner. She let me climb the rocks in the park that my father never would. For more athletic types, there is a tennis court (near the reservoir) and the carousel (southwest corner) which is admittedly pretty cool. If it seems like the activities offered in Central Park are unimportant to me, you've caught my gist pretty well; I'm much more a wander through the park and enjoy what little nature there is type person. But this is not like wandering nature trails in the Adirondacks or other New York State parks. In the summer, there is jazz music and open-air performers, theater going on, weddings taking place at the Terrace or Conservatory, and there are people everywhere.

The reason I'm not so wild about Central Park is that it is yet another busy place in New York City. The City is noisy and there are people everywhere; Central Park is no exception. Those looking to have a real nature experience have a better chance of getting it at the Natural History Museum than they do at Central Park!


The main place to eat in Central Park is the Tavern On The Green, in the southwest corner of the Park. Not being much for taverns, I've not (honestly) stopped in there even. That said, there are plenty of dining options on the edge of Central Park and from cart-vendors throughout. Hot dogs, hamburgers, veggie burgers, sausage and the like may be purchased from any one of hundreds of cart-based vendors set up throughout the park. There is ice cream and plenty of vendors with water or soda for sale in the summer as well. Of course, everything is expensive at these places.


There is a gift shop in the southern part of Central Park along with the visitor's center with plenty of generic "I Love NY" and Central Park merchandise. These, like the vendors throughout the park selling photographs and keychains and the like, are designed for getting tourist cash. There is nothing distinctly "Central Park" for sale in or about Central Park. This is one of the few free places in New York City worth wandering around at.


Call me a curmudgeon, but I like my parks to offer some respite from the urban areas that surround them and it takes weird hours and getting deep into Central Park before one can truly have that sort of experience there. This is a good park and offers a decent change of pace when visiting New York City, but it is hardly an essential park experience and it is barely a nature one, given that there are so many options for things to do within the park.

For other places in New York City to visit, please check out my reviews of:
American Museum Of Natural History
Castle Clinton
Times Square


For other travel reviews, please be sure to visit my Travel Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the travel reviews I have written.

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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